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in real life

2005

The members of the Dadaist forums discuss the life and times of Marcel Duchamp, so I asked them for help with my essay. A guy named ManRay asked what I needed.

All I’ve got so far, I said, is “Marcel Duchamp was born on July 28, 1887, in the town of Blainville, France.”

Well, he said, there’s your problem. It’s not nearly long enough. You should work on that.


When the library closed, I walked back to the bus stop. A man was lying on the bench, his body dimly lit by the yellow streetlamps overhead. He wore a jacket patched at the seams with duct tape, and mumbled quietly to himself. His voice was discontinuous, halting suddenly and then resuming as though the silence had never existed. I stood beside him, watching cars pass by, waiting for the bus to arrive.

When the bus came, he sat up. I walked on and he followed, digging in his pockets for change. The bus was empty, and I sat near the back. After he was done counting out the fare, he walked back and sat across the aisle from me.

“Nice bus,” he said.

My window had been tagged dozens of times, the sharp, jagged lines hopelessly tangled together.

“Yeah,” I said. “Nice.”

He leaned his head against his window, and stared at the passing buildings.

“The thing about buses,” he said, “is that you don’t have to do anything. You just sit there, and the world slides on past you.”


  • Marcel Duchamp was born on July 28, 1887, in the town of Blainville, France. For a time, he lived. He died in Paris on October 1, 1968.

  • Marcel Duchamp was born on July 28, 1887, in the town of Blainville, France. When he was twenty-six, he fell asleep and began to dream of the world we live in. When he wakes, we will all disappear.

  • Marcel Duchamp was born on July 28, 1887, in the town of Blainville, France. Napoleon Bonaparte died on May 5, 1821, on the island of Elba. Felix the Cat was seen on November 22, 1927, in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.


When Duchamp wrote, he liked to use prime words, which are only divisible (definable) by themselves. It wasn’t easy. He had to invent them all.


I asked on the forums how I could best sum up Duchamp’s contribution to art.

There weren’t any contributions for him to make, ManRay said. Or anything to which he could contribute.

I don’t get it, I said.

What’s to get? he said.


I couldn’t think of anything to do that afternoon, so I went to class. As the professor lectured, he drew uneven shapes which skittered across the chalkboard and crowded up against each other.

“As we discussed last week, our baseline for realism is dependent on the media and genre. If enough media is created using a particular aesthetic code, then that code will begin to define the norms of the reality in which it exists.

“For instance, if all movies involved ducks hopping across the screen on one leg, what would strike us as meaningful about each film is not the ducks themselves, but the variations in the style and tempo of their hopping. The ducks would, in effect, become invisible.”

The girl sitting next to me wrote “invisible ducks” in her notes, and underlined it twice.

After class, I walked up to the professor. “I need help with my essay,” I said.

“Well,” he said, “Marcel Duchamp was born in Blainville, France.”

“So I’ve heard,” I said.

“And the thing to understand,” he said, drawing broad, spiraling figures on the board, “is that he never meant the things he said, nor did he mean their opposite. His true meaning hung in the middle like . . .,” he trailed off and stood there, the chalk still pressed against the board. Its tip began to crumble, and white dust fell slowly to the ground.

Finally he turned to me. “Well,” he said, “like something. You know.”


The twenty-two inch bottle brush which hangs off of Duchamp’s painting Tu M’ represents:

  • his latent homosexuality

  • a sublimated desire for his sister

  • this one time when he was trying to clean the grout behind his toilet but couldn’t quite reach it

  • a penis


ManRay messaged me to say that someone on the forums was throwing a party nearby.

I can’t go, I said. I’ve got an essay.

Think of it as research, he said. You should never pass up an opportunity for research.


  • Duchamp once said that to live is to believe. That was his belief, at any rate.

  • “To live is to believe,” Duchamp once said. “That’s my belief, at any rate.”

  • To live is to believe. That was Duchamp’s belief, at any rate.


When I walked into the coffee shop, I passed by a girl who was sitting in an oversized armchair, balancing a laptop precariously on the edge of her knees. It was the sort of computer that would have been bought by parents with more money than common sense, and she had a cute little frown on her face as she tapped the keyboard in frustration.

A man sitting at a nearby table was pouring sugar packets into his coffee as he stared at her. His hair was short, and noticeably receding. As he asked her if she needed any help, he ran his hand through it self-consciously, lingering on his bald spot.

She pointed to her computer. “It isn’t working,” she said.

He asked if he could look at it for her, and she handed it to him. He took a small sip of his coffee as he looked at the screen with furrowed brows. After a moment, he looked up at her.

“What exactly’s wrong with it?”

“None of the websites will come up,” she said.

He nodded sagely, and began to work away at the computer.

"If this ever happens again,” he said, “you should open up this dialog box and click here and here.” He poked the screen with his finger.

The computer still didn’t work. He cleared his throat and kept on talking.

She idly stirred her coffee with her finger, and made small sounds of encouragement and comprehension. When she began to stare out the window, he didn’t notice.

Finally, he passed the working computer back to her. “Let me give you my card, in case you need any more help,” he said, rummaging around in his bag.

“That’s alright, I think I can handle it,” she said, a bit too quickly.

He pulled his hand out of his bag as if burnt. He stood up, and said he had to go. She nodded without looking at him. As he backed away from her, he stumbled over a chair. I followed him outside.

“Do you want to go now?” I asked.

He looked at me for a moment. “Sure,” he said.


When I walked in the door of the house, I didn’t see anyone at first, except for two guys sitting on the couch, staring at the opposite wall. There were four or five people running around the back yard and shouting, so I went out there to see what was going on. As soon as I walked outside, one of them ran up to me and punched me in the face. I held my face and stared at him.

“What the fuck did you do that for?” I yelled. I felt like I might cry.

“We’re playing John Calvinball. You were in the predestined violence zone,” he said. “It was inevitable.” He smiled at me, and a few others laughed. I walked inside, and sat down on the couch. ManRay handed me a tortilla chip.

“Don’t worry,” he told me. “It’s a common beginner’s mistake.”

“Oh,” I said.

Someone offered me a drink, which he said was going to be a vodka tonic except that after he poured the vodka he didn’t have any room left in the cup. I took it.


The television was on, and we were watching an infomercial about a new technique for living our lives that would unlock our true potential when a guy walked in front of us and tripped over his own feet. He tried to get up, but his legs buckled underneath him and he fell again.

“Are you okay?” I said.

“This one time, Marcel Duchamp tried to sell toasters to the Amish,” he said.

“Story of my life,” ManRay said.

“He goes down to Pennsylvania, right, and walks into a town. He sees this guy driving a cart, and he’s got the beard and the hat and everything, so Duchamp walks up to him holding up a toaster in one hand. But the guy doesn’t even stop, and almost runs him over.

“But Duchamp just figures the guy didn’t see him, and he walks up to the nearest farmhouse. He knocks on the door, and a man opens it, and he has the beard and hat, but he also has a gun. So Duchamp walks back onto the road, and tries the next house.”

I walked over and tried to help him up. As he lay there, talking about how Duchamp couldn’t even sell a toaster when he offered some raspberry jam, a fifty dollar value, theirs for free if they ordered now, I saw that his pupils were the size of thumbtacks.

“He doesn’t look so good,” I said. “Maybe we should take him to the emergency room.”

“I’d take him, but my keys are in my pants,” ManRay said. He was sitting in a reclining armchair, wearing a t-shirt and boxers.

“So where are your pants?”

“Got me,” he said. “I was wearing them on my head for a while after I walked into the eclectic haberdashery zone, but I don’t remember what I did with them after that.”

I walked outside and found the pants lying on the lawn. I stepped over the guy on the floor, who was staring at the blinking clock on the VCR and mumbling to himself, and handed them to ManRay.

“Thanks,” he said. “But let’s wait until the infomercial is over. I want to see how it ends.”


We pulled up in front of the hospital and I opened the door and told him to get out, but he just sat there, staring at the dashboard. I pulled him out the door one leg at a time, and then had him lean on me so that he didn’t fall, and as we walked towards the hospital he was saying, “The Amish don’t have hotels or anything, so when it gets dark Duchamp sneaks into a barn high up on a hill. He finds a pile of hay, and he’s lying there, staring at the ceiling, when all of a sudden he hears voices. So he hides, just as two men walk in and grab pitchforks. He watches them go, and through the half-opened doors he sees a bright light off in the distance. He sits there for a while, crouched behind the hay, but finally he decides to follow them.

“As he gets close to the light, he realizes it’s a bonfire, and that the Amish are circled around it. And when he gets even closer, like right next to them, he sees that there are five stakes around the fire, and that there are people tied to them, and that they don’t have the beards or the hats. And then the Amish start to dance around the fire, circling the prisoners, spinning so fast that their hats are falling off.”

The door automatically opened in front of me, and I had to drag him inside because he wasn’t even trying to move his legs anymore. The receptionist asked me what was wrong with him, and I said that I didn’t know, so she told me to sit down in the waiting room. I pulled him into a chair, and he slumped over, and I sat down and waited until a nurse walked up to us and started pulling up his eyelids.

And the nurse was saying, “Do you know his insurance policy number?”

And he was sitting next to me, saying, “The Amish are dancing, whirling silhouettes against the fire, and the prisoners are screaming, but that only makes them dance faster, moving to a beat that only they can hear. And Duchamp, he just sits there.”

And the receptionist was saying to the guy who just walked in with a piece of sheet metal stuck in his arm, “On a scale from a little to a lot, how much does it hurt? Somewhere in between?”

He was resting his head on my shoulder and speaking even faster now, slurring his words and vaguely grasping my arm. A doctor came, and put him into a wheelchair. As he was being taken away, he turned and looked at me and said, “He never tried to sell a toaster ever again.”

I walked up to ManRay, who was talking to the receptionist about the computer she was using, and told him that we could go now if he wanted to. He looked at me imploringly, and asked if I didn’t want to wait just a little bit longer to see if that guy was alright and stuff. I started reading a pamphlet on the patient’s bill of rights. When he offered her his card, she smiled weakly and took it. He kept talking. I decided to call a cab.

I was waiting outside when the cab arrived, wandering aimlessly around the empty parking lot.

“Have some sort of emergency?” the driver asked.

“I guess,” I said.

“Well, don’t worry about any of that right now,” he said. “Just sit back and relax.”

The meter counted off quarters as the streetlamps slid past my window.

“Yeah,” I said. “Okay.”